Drones ahead: pilotless planes reduce danger and increase efficiency.

Author:West, Gail
 
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Evergreen Helicopters Inc., an Evergreen Aviation International company, is hot on the trail of a budding new industry--operating Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in conditions deemed hazardous for manned aircraft.

With increasing interest in oil and gas exploration offshore in Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas, and the need to monitor forest fires and whale and wildlife migration patterns and population counts, the opportunities for the UAS seem boundless.

"There are all kinds of potential markets for this technology," said Nicole Whitmire, EHI's media representative and a member of the Unmanned Systems sales team. "These systems can provide border patrol, monitor whale populations, and map geophysical changes. Applications present themselves daily, based on the capabilities of the payload onboard the UAS.

"The most immediate issue right now is obtaining permission to fly," Whitmire said. "The Federal Aviation Administration is working hard to update regulations to adequately and safely cover the unmanned systems, but until they do, civilian and commercial organizations must work with the FAA to obtain Certificates of Authorization."

The University of Alaska, along with Insitu Inc. of Bingen, Wash., is testing these drones as a way to offer additional safety to pilots--drones can fly over the remote ice fields and open water that make manned flights so dangerous--and testing is currently under way at the university's Poker Flat range.

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In June 2006, the two organizations signed a Memorandum of Understanding in which the university purchased Insitu's Insight unmanned aerial vehicle to fly test demonstrations targeted to finding out how the drone can be used in Alaska, and how it operates in Alaska conditions. Under this MOU, Insitu will continue to provide the university with upgrades over the next three years, as technology improves.

"We've signed contracts with the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy to help develop new regulations for these aircraft," said Greg Walker, manager of the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Poker Flat Range.

"Flying them in Alaska is ideal," Walker said. "Our airspace is less congested, and this enhances safety as the work matures.

"We're also working to identify the hurdles that must be overcome for a new operation to become financially feasible, testing the technology that can be loaded onto the craft as payloads, and identifying new uses for the technology," Walker...

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